The James band know who its constituents are : “Those who feel the breadth of sadness”, “those who find they’re touched by madness” and “those who find themselves ridiculous. Those are some of the categories itemised in “Sit Down” which became a major hit in England in 1991 and had fans singing along “Sit down next to me” on Tuesday night at the Ritz. (In decorous England, fans sit down, at the Ritz people stayed on their feet)
Heartfelt, straightforward and more than a little plaintive, James speaks to sensitive teenagers (and post-teenagers) who’ll admit if alone with an album or at a concert with like-minded people that they’re not as cheerful and confident as others seem to be.
James was formed in Manchester, England in the early 1980s and has gradually accreted a style that pulls together the confessional bluntness of mope-rock, the high-minded anthems and marches of U2 and the neo-pyschedelic grooves of English rave music.
Crooning in a smooth tenor voice that echoes U2’s Bono and Morrissey of The Smiths (another Manchester band), Tim Booth sings about political disillusionment and private alienation. To battle frustration, the band urges positive action: “Stop talking about who’s to blame when all that counts is how to change.” It also suggests for the moment that listeners “leave yourself behind” temporarily for the pleasures of dancing and music. In “Lose Control” Mr Booth sings “We float on seas of disbelief while singing songs of pain relief”
For the band, relief takes the form of tuneful riffs and multiveiled vamps. James might use folk-rock guitars, percolating keyboards or U2’s martial beat; compared with most current dance bands, there’s very little funk. Its seven members can turn a simple riff into a minimalistic web of overlapping lines, stretching pop songs for dancefloor use while spotlights swivel and flash.
But Mr Booth’s singing and his sentiments hold the foreground of the songs. After a decade he seems surprisingly ingenuous and unguarded, eager to share his feelings and to reassure his listeners that while they may be unhappy, they’re not alone. Good-natured, propulsive and melodic, James never underestimates the importance of being earnest.